Koi Hai?

Philip John

Since publishing the blog of my visits to Darjeeling, Dooars, and Assam I have been befriended on FaceBook by many ex Planters from that era, people who resonated with my story. In the process I have joined a group called ‘Koi-Hai Tea Planters Assam, Darjeeling, & North East India’! The group members post great stories and wonderful old photographs of an era gone by.

For my overseas readers who do not understand what Koi-Hai means, here is a brief explanation. The institution of the ‘Club’ was introduced by the Brits who were in India serving in the government, army, business or planting. Whenever, there were sufficient numbers of such ‘like-minded’ people they formed Clubs in different locations, membership to which was exclusively for the British. The only Indians who were allowed to join were the Maharajas, and later Indians who had joined the Civil Service. They were usually educated in Britain, in institutions like Oxford or Cambridge. This ensured that apart from speaking the Queen’s English these Indians were adept at the use of cutlery, as well as, knew western table manners. The Club rules were punctilious, by way of dress code and decorum. Some Clubs in India such as the Ootacamund Club, continue these practices.

A few years ago, Prafull Goradia was visiting the Nilgiris from Delhi and had booked into the Ooty Club. On the first morning he came down to the Dining Room for breakfast. This was a period when Prafull would wear nothing but khaki shirts (worn bush-shirt style), and white trousers. He was wearing a good brand of leather chappals – which had no straps. He sat down, and I guess looked forward to a good South Indian breakfast, always a favourite with vegetarians from North India. A Waiter in a starched white uniform appeared with what looked like a leather bound Menu folder. He handed it over and pointed to Rule No. 87 which read, “Members or their Guests are not permitted to use the Dining Room unless wearing closed shoes.” Prafull gave back the Rule Book, got up and walked out never to set foot in Ooty Club again!

Incidentally, I am a member of this Club and have served on the Committee in the eighties. It is a very well run Club as you can see from their website!
Please click on this link: Ootacamund Club.

In North Indian Clubs the Waiters were beckoned by shouting, “Koi Hai?” – literally translated from Hindi it means, “Is anyone there?” The waiter assigned to that area would quickly appear to take your order!

It worked well and Koi Hai became the accepted term to call for service.

As you can see there was a class differentiation between the Sahib and the Koi Hais. We Indians had become accustomed to having servants at home. The number of servants depended on your social status. In the plantations it was a large number. I think I once counted 16 servants at my cousin’s Bungalow after he took over as Manager of a large Assam property. To the Western mind this is an anathema. Over the years they have become egalitarian, partly because of rising wages. Unless you were super rich you would take out the trash yourself. In India of yore, this would be an alien thought but times are changing!

In the old days this kind of vassalage worked well. The employer was the social, medical, economic ‘safety net’ of the employee. For instance if a Cook needed money, he would ‘borrow’ from the employer. This ‘due’ would be forgotten over time. If his daughter was to be married off most of the expenses would be met by the employer. His children would be educated and placed at earning jobs. He and his family would stay on the premises and often his wife would help the lady of the house and they would earn a double income.

The system worked well most of the time though there would be the occasional misuse. But it was the unwritten rule that the well being of servants and his dependants was the responsibility of the employer.

Like everything else, things are changing in India and this system has, more or less, been phased out in the larger cities. Those who were used to a large retinue of servants have to make do with part-time help. There has been a great improvement by way of goods and services that are available in the cities. Dependence on the Koi Hai’s has come down, largely because such trained help is seldom available and wages have increased many times over!

Which is the best Tea?

The first question people ask when they find out that I am a Tea Taster is,
“So, what is the best tea?”
My stock answer is, “It’s the tea that your Mom served at home when you were growing up!” It’s not a tongue in cheek answer – that’s the truth.
Our taste buds get to like things which we regularly experience over time. A masala chai drinker will hate tea brewed the British way and vice versa – though companies like Starbucks have worked hard to give new blends and tastes a modern twist. Masala Chai is a hot selling item. They have even gone to the extend of offering a Masala Chai with a shot of Espresso coffee! Wildly popular, I hear.

In India masala chai is a hunger and thirst quencher rolled into one. The tea leaves are boiled in milk with a little cardamom and ginger/nutmeg, and a generous helping of sugar. Two such breaks during the work-day helps the labourers to see the day through. On special occasions ‘milk biscuits’ are given, which are dipped in the masala chai and eaten at a crumbly stage- a delicacy!

Green Tea is becoming increasingly popular. Tea meant Green Tea in China and Japan and the Far-Eastern countries. The Green Tea lobby has now added blends with Hibiscus, Tulsi etc. and have worked hard to reach your pockets through the health angle.

My tea tasting profession has given me access to the best teas in the world. Having tasted many kinds I would deem an Assam CTC second flush, as my favourite tea to drink! It is brisk (fresh and lively), full bodied, with quality (tea flavour) that I enjoy in a tea. Of course I do my own blending to enhance various attributes. I brew my tea and drink it with a few drops of milk and a smidgeon of sugar.

I also enjoy First Flush Darjeeling Orthodox tea which I drink without milk. A little lime and a few drops of honey is refreshing and a delicious option.

Orthodox Tea from Nilgiris and High Range, produced during the winter months in South India, are also nice. Many South Indian tea producers are working hard to improve their quality and be counted among the wide variety of good tea that is currently available worldwide. This is a matter close to my heart and I will discuss it at a later date.

When I visit someone, unless I know the source, I always ask for Coffee because there is nothing worse than a bad cup of tea!
And nothing better than a good cup!
I am sure my tea taster jat-bhais share this sentiment!

5 Responses

  1. Wonderful. Particularly the ‘koi-hai’ explanation! In Assam and the Dooars, the old Brit die-hards would thunder an accented ‘ko-hai’ when ordering for anything from a whisky soda to the day old newspaper or his dinner. And in doing so they earned the title of ‘The Ko-hais’! I remember them well.

  2. Excellent. Loved the bit about ‘which is the best tea ‘, a topic that is trending after Vir Singhvi’s article Rude food
    under tea tales in Hindustan times Dated 13th July.
    Link below is UPASI’s rejoinder. It is only the commonsense approach that you have adopted based on decades of experience that can counter the common man’s perception about a drink that is as emotive as it is personal. Kudos.

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